Thursday, June 24, 2010

Soccer, Football, and the New Post-Colonialism

Although I put my future happiness at risk by admitting it, I confess that I missed all of Algeria’s games in the World Cup. Yes, even the spectacular, save-the-day, Landon Donovan goal in the ninety-first minute of the match with the US. Although I am keeping one eye on the proceedings, that’s about all I can afford at the moment; and when I do commit to watching a match, it’s inevitably a daylong affair, as viewing space in Brooklyn is now coming at something of a premium, and once you stake out a space, you don’t want to let it go. I watched Brazil/Cote d’Ivoire at Madiba, the South African joint on Dekalb in Fort Greene, and was overwhelmed by the throng. Friends that work at restaurants throughout our fine borough report a dramatic tide of customers, the ebb and flow coinciding with FIFA’s schedule.

I don’t remember it being like this, last time around. Granted, I was leaving New York in July 2006, and I don’t remember much of the period immediately before. What I do remember, however, is that World Cup spectatorship was a relatively isolated phenomenon, with fans gathering in a few scattered bars on the Lower East Side, where the expatriates of the professional class would gather to watch the action and commiserate over being lost in a sea of red, white, and blue ignorance. I was still working in a restaurant at the time, one on the Upper West Side. For the duration of El Mundial, I witnessed an all out war for control of the television over the bar, with the largely Mexican and Central American kitchen and floor staff battling the bourgeois, largely white, American bar crowd. For some reason I still can’t entirely fathom, in this particular establishment, the bar patrons loved to watch golf, a sport that proceeds with all the kinetic energy of a caterpillar in its pupa stage. Yet, when the kitchen staff managed to commandeer the television for the hour or so between the lunch and dinner shifts—the point when the restaurant was at its most informal—the bar patrons would complain, at great length, about the tedium of soccer, about how they just didn’t understand the game, and about the enthusiasm of its fans. How, they wondered, could something so boring mean so much, to so many people? Soccer fanaticism confirmed my bar patrons in their jingoism because, once you assume that soccer is inherently boring, the only possible answer to their question is that people in the rest of the world are crazy—which is something that Americans are generally inclined to believe.

Or at least they were. It’s obviously still too early to tell, but I’m beginning to wonder if something has changed. And, keep in mind that I am, at best, a gloomy, cynical, disheartened wretch. I don’t trade in gooey sentiment or hopeful sloganeering. I believe in misery, and I believe that there is more than enough reason to be miserable, at the moment. That said, it seems like something is shaking loose. Americans have a very conflicted relationship to the game they call soccer (a word that somehow derives, I’ve learned from Brett Baldwin, from the game’s official moniker “association football”) and, even when American interest in the game has been low, American attitudes toward football/soccer have generally been as political as those of more rabid fans around the world. As my restaurant example suggests, a myriad of social, cultural, political, and economic conflicts are manifest in and through soccer in the United States, even if the lines of class affiliation and national identity characteristic of European football are not as clear, and even if some people claim not to care. At present, this dynamic shows up in the right-wing’s attempt to link the World Cup to President Obama’s “secular-socialist-Islamist” conspiracy. By forcing us to watch soccer, Glenn Beck argues, Comrade Obama is trying to turn America into Europe. Next thing you know, we’ll have Parisian-style public toilets lining Fifth Avenue! Good thing we’ve got the Second Amendment so we can defend ourselves against such government overreach.

Yet, for all that bluster, the ratings for the World Cup are up. The US/England game was watched by more people than the opening game of the NBA finals. The same applies, however, even to matches in which pretty boy douchebag Landon Donovan is not playing. The Brazil/Cote d’Ivoire game, for instance, was broadcast not on ESPN or ESPN2 but on ABC, in the middle of the afternoon, on a Sunday, the zero hour of American sports spectatorship. Perhaps more significantly (although it is a big country, so maybe this is no trick) Americans make up the largest portion of spectators in South Africa. None of this is conclusive, of course, yet it is suggestive, and the media who cover these things have wasted no time suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Americans are finally getting into it, that the beautiful game might finally be resonating on these shores, that—like it or not, Glenn Beck—football’s coming home.

Over at The Nation, Dave Zirin has been very attuned to the cultural politics of this moment, and I think he got it right when he argued that the rise of soccer fandom corresponds, in part, the subtle demographic shifts that have taken place, in the United States, since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Right-wing opposition, Zirin posits, stems from the same phenomenon, as white Americans seek to fortify their already slim majority against Lothrop Stoddard’s “rising tide of color.”

While this explains a great deal, I’m not sure it’s the whole story. And what I’m wondering about now—and what gives me pause and opportunity for hope—is whether or not the generational and demographic shifts that are very clearly at work, in this moment, can be thought in terms of the waning of American empire. That’s a big, broad, not entirely coherent thought, so let me try to parse it out.

About two years ago, I had my introduction to American studies seminar read a short article, by Immanuel Wallerstein, called “The Curve of American Power.” First published in the New Left Review in 2006, “Curve” is a condensed version of the argument that Wallerstein has been making for years; namely, that alternations in the nature of global political economy threaten the bases of American political and economic power. Without getting into the K-waves of it, the argument is fairly straightforward: since 1945, America’s global political and economic power has rested upon its ability to dictate the terms of the world system. With European and East Asian industrial plants destroyed during World War II, the US became the producer, financier, and political broker of the so-called First World. Because of the presumed stability of the US government and economy, the dollar became the global reserve currency. Profits from US global supremacy were redistributed, domestically, into the development of the infrastructure and consumer culture we have come to associate with the suburban American middle-class. Such downward redistribution of wealth, coupled with the cultural politics of the Red Scare, stemmed dissent, thus keeping production humming.

Since the early 1970s, however, when European and Asian industrial capacity began to exceed that of the US, American hegemony over the international system has been threatened. American consumer culture and political power rested upon the ability to control the international market and, once forced to compete with other industrial powers, that power began to fade. In order to preserve profits, corporations began looking for ways to circumvent the power of labor, while the government began searching for new strategies through which to preserve America’s political might. This is, in David Harvey’s rendering, also the moment in which the financialization of the economy began to take shape. As competition rendered assets in the “real economy” less and less profitable, investors begin inventing derivatives based upon credit and currency markets, leading to ever more risky investment schemes that are less and less connected to the materiality of production. The edges of these pieces are somewhat jagged, yet they add up to a fairly clear picture. American power has been on the wane since the mid-1970s, Wallerstein argues, and every national security strategy, from then until now, has been predicated upon slowing its decline.

My rendering of the argument is piecemeal, at best, but then, so is Wallerstein’s. The point that I wanted to get to, though, is that, in sharing this line of argument with my undergraduates, I set off a firestorm. My students—my highly intellectual, politically savvy, bright and committed students—had a reaction to Wallerstein that was as visceral as it was bizarre (at least, to me). “You mean we’re not the best anymore?” Although we analyzed the article on its merits and its flaws, the general tone of our conversation followed this line. “How is it possible?” “I’ve never thought of that.” “How can we not be the best?”

Americans do not think of themselves as an imperial people, yet they have the imperial habit of thinking the best of themselves at all times, in all situations and—fair or not—the domestic arrangements of the last seventy-odd years have helped support this illusion. And in those moments when it was becoming painfully clear that America was not “the best,” that it had some painful, profound challenges to face, we Americans ducked those through fits of magical thinking. We ask for more government services even as we argue against government; we ask for high levels of super efficient government service, yet we refuse to accept the necessity of paying taxes, even when it means that our market-based expenses might be decreased. We elect Reagan to protect us from the downer Carter. We respond to President Obama most when he is telling us things we want to hear—about our goodness, our greatness, and our willingness to sacrifice. But, of course, we don’t want to sacrifice. The last great gasp of collective belief in this America might have come after 9/11, when it was—at least for a moment—possible to believe that our hurt was greater than the whole world, that no one had never been hurt like us before, that the worst thing ever had happened, and it had happened to us. Because we were great and good.

There is a generational fault line running through American culture, and the crack begins at the point where American power made its hairpin curve. On one side are those Americans who grew up in a world in which they could believe that they were at the top of the pyramid; on the other are those of us who have been told, our entire lives, that America is the greatest, even after that statement stopped matching our material reality. Those of us on the other side of that line, those of us born after such certainties were possible, have been slowly waking to the realization of our national decline. Some may celebrate it, others may not; everyone might have different ideas about what it means, but one way or another, we are losing our illusions, and that loss opens up new vistas, new possibilities.

At the US Social Forum, this week, the cry has gone out: “Another world is possible; another US is necessary.” I want to believe that, if some Americans are watching soccer, their interest indexes a new consciousness in formation, and of a chance of a truly post-colonial America.

Muslims on Main Street

The Utne Reader has printed an abridged version of my Spring 2010 Bidoun essay. I haven't seen the physical issue, yet, but you can find it online at the link below.

And I promise a real blog entry by the end of the day. Seriously. I will not be deterred by the World Cup. I will not be deterred by writer's block.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Algeria v. Slovenia

Sunday, 7:30am. Who's there? And which brand of Marxist-inflected psychoanalysis will triumph?

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Solidarity, democracy, and the future

In the June 2 issue of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman criticized the Palestinian solidarity movement for emphasizing the Israeli blockade of Gaza over other human rights crises in the Middle East. He writes: “I have no problem with Turkey or other humanitarian groups criticizing Israel. But I have a big problem when people get so agitated by Israel’s actions in Gaza but are unmoved by Syria’s involvement in the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon, by the Iranian regime’s killing of its own citizens demonstrating for the right to have their votes counted, by Muslim suicide bombers murdering nearly 100 Ahmadi Muslims in mosques in Pakistan on Friday and by pro-Hamas gunmen destroying a UN-sponsored summer camp in Gaza because it wouldn’t force Islamic fundamentalism down the throats of children.” Though he offers no evidence to support his point, Friedman uses this supposed lack of passion to suggest that the solidarity movement is, at base, motivated by hate. The argument that critics of Israel are closet anti-Semites is, of course, all too familiar, but in Friedman’s case, it comes with a prescriptive edge. If you want to talk about Israel and Palestine, he seems to say, address yourselves to all the other problems in the Middle East. Work those out, and then we’ll get back to you.

Friedman is an intellectual featherweight, yet his incoherent screed offers an opportunity for those of us in the Palestinian solidarity movement to clarify our position with regard to the struggle. When the Ahmadis are being slaughtered in Lahore, when the streets of Kingston are running with blood, and when the Gulf of Mexico is drowning in oil, what is it about Palestine that commands our attention?

The most reasonable answer to this question may be the overwhelming human misery caused by Israeli policies toward Palestine. Despite having the right of return under international law, Palestinians remain the largest and oldest refugee population in the world, with over 4.6 million in exile, 2.2. million of whom live in some fifty-nine refugee camps throughout the Arab world. Since 1967, the Palestinians who remained in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem have lived under Israeli military occupation; at present, the occupied territories are home to 3.2 million. Together, the landmass of the territories is less than one thousand square kilometers, making for a population density of 3,200 per square kilometer. By contrast, the most densely populated state in the US, New Jersey, has only 452 people per square mile. Since 2007, the 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza have suffered under an Israeli blockade prompted by the election of Hamas in 2006. According to UNRWA, the Strip receives, at present, less than a quarter of the provisions it did before the blockade began, and no provisions are allowed into Gaza without Israel’s approval. Travel between the West Bank and Gaza is all but impossible, and commerce is almost unheard of, even as Israel builds new roads to facilitate Israeli settlers’ movements through the occupied West Bank.

Prior to December 2008, the situation in Palestine was merely intolerable. Since then, following over three weeks of airstrikes by the Israeli military, life in Gaza has been made almost impossible. Using the heinously retrograde logic that civilians were harboring terrorists—“terrorists” in this case referring to the democratically-elected Hamas government—the IDF bombed civilian targets throughout the strip, even, at one point, targeting UNRWA relief workers and civilian press. Israeli spokespeople argued that the bombardment was prompted by security concerns stemming from rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. If Hamas could not ensure Israeli security, they argued, the IDF would. In point of fact, rocket fire from Gaza into Israel had decreased more than 98% following the ceasefire of 21 June 2008; it only picked up after Israel violated the ceasefire agreement with an attack on cross-border tunnels in Gaza on 4 November. This date is very significant, and it speaks to the perfidy of the Israeli government when it comes to the question of Palestine or the so-called “peace process.” November 4, 2008 was, of course, the day before the US Presidential election; the attacks were called off within about twenty-four hours of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The Israeli siege of Gaza, in other words, was the consequence of a political calculation, because it was generally assumed that the interregnum between Bush and Obama would be the last time Israel had carte blanche when it came to enforcing its will over the occupied territories. This reading of the situation is more or less confirmed by the report issued by the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which states that “the attack on the only remaining flour producing factory, the destruction of a large part of the Gaza egg production, the bulldozing of huge tracts of agricultural land, and the bombing of some two hundred industrial facilities, could not on any basis be justified on military grounds. Those attacks,” the report concluded, “had nothing whatsoever to do with the firing of rockets and mortars at Israel.” Operation Cast Lead reduced much of the strip to rubble, and left more than 1300 Palestinians, and 13 Israelis, dead.

The physical toll of the occupation is more than enough reason to support Palestine, but it is—I want to suggest—only one of the conditions that compels our solidarity. Perhaps more important is the relationship between what Jean Genet used to call the Palestinian revolution and the future of the Arab world. Friedman claims that those of us in the Palestinian solidarity movement have not taken into account the myriad crimes committed throughout the greater Middle East by the various sects and regimes that control the region, suggesting that our support for Palestine is evidence of either hatred or a blind fanatical conviction. It is difficult to see how Friedman maintains any credibility on this point when he mentions Syrian involvement in the murder of Rafiq Hariri—a charge often advanced but never proven—and fails to mention the very real, systematic, and brutal abuses committed, as a matter of course, by the government of Saudi Arabia, or the suppression of Muslim communities in his darling of the developing world, India. Of course, the only constant in Friedman’s work is a general hostility to reason, so I won’t dwell overlong on the speciousness of his argument. Although the equivalence he poses between the scope of Israel’s crime in Palestine and the violence and human rights abuses meted out elsewhere in the Arab world is false, I would argue that our support for Palestine emerges, in part, from a consideration of these very crimes.

To support the Palestinian cause, in my estimation, is to support the cause of justice throughout the greater Middle East—or, what Friedman sometimes calls, for no particular reason, the Arab-Muslim world. Of the many facts about Palestine and the Palestinian revolution that have been suppressed in the United States, one of the most significant is that the Palestinian revolution has, at various points in its history, understood itself in opposition to the many autocratic and undemocratic regimes that control the Arab Middle East. This is one of the reasons why Palestinian rights are suppressed in places like Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon. Historically, most Arab regimes have been interested in the Palestinian cause to the extent that Palestine presents either a point of popular democratic mobilization against their rule, or a safety valve through which to redirect the legitimate political grievances that emerge under autocracies. For most Arab leaders who wield the power of the state, Palestine is important as a matter of state, and a matter between states, because of its potential to inspire a democratic popular front throughout the greater Arab world. One gleans hints of this potentiality in the aid flotillas that have attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza; one sees it, as well, in the street protests that erupted in the capitals of the Arab world during the Gaza War in 2008-09. On the other hand, one sees the ineptitude of Arab statecraft in the 2009 summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh called in response to the bombing of Gaza. Lacking any signals out of Washington as to how the wind would blow under Obama, various statesmen from throughout the Arab world could not come to any meaningful conclusion about the crisis.

It would be easy to take this point as one more strike against the Arab world, or a backhanded case for the Zionist claim that Israel is the only democracy in the region. To do so would be to grossly misconstrue the point. Solidarity with Palestine, at its best, and at its broadest, has meant—historically—solidarity with democracy itself; not the democracy that George W. Bush or other missionary statesmen have sought to impose upon the Arab Middle East like so many other political “solutions” imposed upon the Middle East since the end of the first World War, but the real deal democracy that inheres in the collective and that is the only guarantee of the individual and her liberties. Democracy, as Fred Moten has argued, is to identify with the common, and the commons; it is the condition of all state structures in that it is the very thing that might undermine those structures. This is democracy at its most dangerous, its most powerful, and sometimes its most problematic. It is the reason why Fanon insisted—against the entirety of the Marxist tradition—that we attend to the lumpen, and that we learn from the lumpen even as they learn from an “us” that I’m not quite sure can be said to exist. This is the democracy that allows “us” to find ourselves as such. It is this democracy that has the only chance of saving this doomed world. I am in solidarity with Palestine because I am in solidarity with democracy and because I believe that, by being in solidarity with Palestine, we might yet save ourselves.